The doctor pushed the needle into my hip, and a few minutes later—the tranquilizer already turning my brain soft—I was in a field of high grass I could see and hear breathing. I kept going in and out. The doctor’s body seemed tall and skinny, warped as in a fun-house mirror. My girlfriend, next to him, moved her mouth in slow motion, but made no sound. I recognized her as someone other than my girlfriend, someone I’d known in another life, someone who had been important to me—my wife or sister or daughter, or someone I had murdered or who had murdered me—and I wanted to tell her this, it was so clear to me, we’d known each other for eons, but I couldn’t speak. I reached out and touched her hand, but when I looked again, my arm was at my side, it hadn’t moved. I tried to wiggle my finger but couldn’t. I closed my eyes and lay in the field of grass and breathed with it, and this was all I’d have to do for eternity. I woke with my face against a cold cab window, then Alex helped me through the rain and into her bed, where a few hours earlier I had fake-raped her at her request.
When she had come home earlier that evening, I was waiting for her in her bedroom closet. She’d asked me to use a knife, but I was much too afraid of an accident, so I bought a plastic knife and hoped that would be good enough. We hadn’t planned when or how—she left that up to me—and so when I came out of her closet and put my arm around her neck, she truly was frightened: she dropped her keys and purse and screamed. I put my hand over her mouth and whispered into her ear that I was going to rape her and would kill her if she didn’t do exactly what I told her to do. I said she should nod if she understood, and she did. I knew I would have a tough time going through with this if I had to look at her face, so I made her lie on her stomach. I pushed her face into a pillow to muffle her crying. Eventually she was quiet, but I was afraid she wasn’t breathing, so I turned her over. I didn’t want her to look at me—she really did seem frightened—so I pressed the knife against her neck and told her to close her eyes. “If you open your eyes, I’ll kill you,” I said, but I don’t know what I would have done had she opened them.
I kept my eyes closed too, except when I pulled her hair or slapped her face—never to hurt but rather to give the impression of hurting—and when it was over I told her not to move until an hour after I was gone, and if she got up to call the police I might be waiting outside her door, and I’d come back in and this time . . . but I couldn’t finish this sentence because I was sure I was having a heart attack. I stood beside the bed, trying to breathe deeply and slowly, but my heart was beating so rapidly I thought it was going to seize, and the pressure in the center of my chest was so severe I couldn’t speak, but I must have been making some sound, quick shallow breaths, and Alex turned around and saw that I wasn’t acting. She gave me one of her Valium, and a few minutes later I asked for another. We waited, me on the floor now, her rubbing my back, telling me it was going to be okay, I didn’t do anything wrong, she wasn’t hurt, it was all make-believe, but nothing she did or said could slow my heart. She took me downstairs—I think she forgot to put on her underwear, forgot to lock her door—and we took a cab to the emergency room, where they asked me, and then Alex, if I was on drugs.
We had met at work, but not the way most people meet at work. I took a job caring for a man with cerebral palsy—cooking for him, doing his laundry, feeding him, bathing him, helping him use the bathroom, helping him do everything a person needs to do to live. My first day on the job a young woman, tall and thin and with wonderfully crooked teeth, came to the man’s house to ask for her final check. She kept touching her nose ring and couldn’t stand still—she was shifting her weight from one leg to the other in a kind of rocking motion that lulled me into staring at her. Henry, the man I took care of, told her she had to leave, that there was a restraining order, and that she couldn’t have her last check because she had stolen some of his pills. “I need those pills so I don’t shake as much,” he said, “and you stole them from me.”
We’ve been through this,” she said. “I never touched your pills except to give them to you. I’m very sorry you feel the way you do.”
“I don’t have any check,” he said. “I’m not your boss.”
“This is total bullshit,” she said.
I followed her out, Henry telling me all the while not to bother with her. “Don’t listen to her,” he said. “She’s trouble.”
Outside, I asked her if she was okay, if there was anything I could do, by which I meant: Don’t go yet. I want to look at you. You remind me of . . .
“Why are you staring at me like that?”
“I’m very tall for a woman, I know.”
“It’s not that,” I said. “Listen, if you don’t mind my asking, why were you fired?”
“I took one of his pills,” she said. “But it’s not what you think. I have my own prescription, so the way I see it, I wasn’t really stealing.”
“They just hired me, so I guess I’m your replacement.”
“You won’t last six months,” she said.
“Six months,” I said. “I was thinking a few weeks, until I find something else.”
“Aren’t you going to ask me why I take Valium?”
“I wasn’t going to ask,” I said. “It’s none of my business.”
She took out a pen and asked me to write my number on her arm. “I’m going to call you and we’re going to become friends,” she said. “We’re going to have an adventure. Is that okay with you?”
“I’m not the adventurous type,” I said.
“But you are,” she said. “I can always tell.”
She invited me over to her apartment, a large high-ceilinged room divided into sections by shoji screens—a twin bed and dresser in one section, a sofa and two high-backed Victorian chairs in another, a desk and drawing table in another. She made lamb chops, and when I told her I didn’t eat meat she tried to bait me into eating some. “Come on,” she said, holding the meat near my mouth. “I want to see you have a bite, just a nibble. Just to prove that you’re not afraid of anything.”
“But I am afraid of some things.”
“Are you afraid of me?”
“No. You have a scar on your wrist.”
“Well,” she said. “You have a big nose.”
“I’m sorry I said that.”
“Don’t be,” she said. “I was seventeen, it was stupid.”
“I’m still sorry.”
“Stop saying you’re sorry.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Actually, I lied,” she said. “It was last year. But I’m fine now, I want to live. Now it’s your job to change the subject.”
“How can you afford a place like this, wiping asses for a living?”
“I don’t wipe asses for a living, you do.”
“Seriously,” I said.
“My parents died and left me a lot of money.”
“You’re not supposed to say that.”
“Well, I am.”
“You say ‘I’m sorry’ way too much,” she said. “You must feel guilty about something. Did you run over a dog?”
“How’s this?” I said. “I regret the unfortunate passing of your parents.”
“Don’t,” she said. “I’m rich.”
“Did you not like them?”
“I stopped liking them for a while,” she said, “but by the time they died, I liked them again.”
“Did they die together?”
“Nothing dramatic like a car accident or plane crash. Something much more romantic. They both got cancer and died within a few days of each other.”
“Of course!” she said. “My God! How can you not think that’s—Come here,” she said, and when I did, she kissed me. She stopped kissing me only to say, “Do you see? Do you see what I mean?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, and she kissed me again, then pushed me onto her bed.
“I’m not a slut,” she said. “I’m only having sex with you because I have great intuition and I know you’re a good egg and would never hurt me.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Do you know that I’m not a slut?”
“And you wouldn’t hurt me, right?”
While we were having sex, she kept saying, “Like this,” and she would move my hand, or we would switch positions. She had long, delicate toes, and her stomach was so flat, her hip bones so sharp, that I kept touching her there, but gently. “Don’t be afraid,” she said. “I won’t break.” At times it felt like she was trying to wrestle with me, and we found ourselves in positions it was impossible to have sex in: me hanging off the side of the bed, my back to her, or me sitting on her back, but facing away from her, so that all I could think to do was lean over and kiss her ankles and the bottoms of her feet. With someone else I might have stopped and laughed and said, “Hold on, hold on, what are we doing? We’re not in the circus.” But her face, when we faced each other, was serious, and she appeared to be straining more than anything—trying to climb over me or pull me over her, pushing me away when I came close, pulling me back when I moved away. When I was finally inside her it seemed to happen by accident: I was holding her down by her wrists, she was pushing up, and suddenly I felt it, and then we hardly moved at all, our hips grinding into each other in slow, deliberate movements that hurt. Near the end, she put my hand over her mouth and pressed, but eventually it wasn’t her pressing, it was me, and the more she seemed to like it, the more I leaned into her, and then I grabbed her hair, and she seemed to like that, and then I pulled her hair, and we both liked this, and as she came close to finishing she began to hyperventilate, and I almost stopped, but didn’t, and when it was over, she cried. When I asked her what was wrong, she said, “I knew you wouldn’t hurt me.”
At work the next day, while I was pulling up his underwear, Henry said, “She’s your girlfriend, isn’t she?”
“I’m telling you, she’s trouble.”
I helped Henry put on the rest of his clothes, shaved him, wet and combed his hair, then put him in front of the TV. “If she’s your girlfriend,” he said, “how can I trust you? How do I know you won’t start stealing pills for her?”
“She didn’t steal any pills.”
“Do you see what I mean? Already you’re defending her!”
“You’re not my father,” I said, and he turned his chair away from me. For the next few hours he spoke only to tell me what to do: Change my shirt, get me some water, take me outside, get the mail, fold the laundry, I need to use the pot, give me a shower.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” I said.
“I can see it,” he said. “It’s too late. You’re already lost.”
“She’s just a girl.”
“She’s very charming when she’s not being crazy,” he said. “She used to try to sweet-talk me. She’d show up an hour late, then bake me brownies.”
“Maybe she was just being nice.”
“One night, this guy showed up looking for her. A big guy, big like a football player. I saw him through the window. He was banging on the door, but spoke in a calm voice. ‘I know you’re in there,’ he said. ‘Don’t make me angry. You’re going to be in trouble if you don’t come out.’ His voice was very calm, it was creepy. I sat in my chair next to the door; she hid in the shower.”
“So what,” I said. “She had a crazy boyfriend.”
“Good luck,” he said.
Alex and I spent most nights together at her place, which was fine with me—my studio was half the size of her apartment and didn’t have hot water. I’d been showering every three days in cold water, a quick lather and rinse; I’d even shaved my head so my hair wouldn’t get as itchy.
“You should walk on your lease,” Alex said. “You can move in here and be my houseboy.”
“What exactly does a houseboy do?”
“Whatever he’s told to do,” she said.
“I already have that job.”
She cooked for me, and played garage rock, and sang loudly and terribly to me until her downstairs neighbor banged on his ceiling. She said things like “I have to be careful, I could fall in love with you,” or “If we had kids, I’d want them to have your nose—it’s a substantial nose, but it’s beautiful.” But every time we had sex she asked me to do or act out something hurtful. When she told me to hit her, I assumed she was asking me to spank her, so I smacked her ass, which was the only fleshy part of her body, but she said, “No, I want you to hit me in the face.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It doesn’t feel right.”
“Come on,” she said. “It can’t be wrong if I’m asking you to do it.”
“I don’t think I have it in me.”
“Bullshit,” she said. “You have plenty of anger in you. I’ve seen it.”
“When do you think?”
“I’m not an angry person.”
“Like this,” she said, then slapped my face.
“Jesus,” I said. “That fucking hurt.”
“If you don’t slap me, I’ll slap you again, next time harder.”
“Have you thought about taking up boxing?”
The second time she slapped me, the noise sounded fake, the kind of noise they dub over slaps in movies. My face stung, and I was embarrassed; my instinct was to hit her back, but I didn’t. Instead, I got on top of her, held down her arms, and said, “What the fuck are you doing?” She tried to kick me, so I put my knees on her thighs. “If you hit me one more time, I swear—”
“You swear what?” she said.
After we had sex, she cried, and after she cried, she made us martinis, which we sipped in bed. She touched my face where she had smacked me, and told me she was sorry. “I don’t want you to be afraid,” she said.
“I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
“Listen,” she said. “I only want to feel good. Isn’t that what we all want—to feel good, and to make others feel good?”
I put my hand around her wrist, the one with the scar. “I think I pulled out some of your hair.”
“It’ll grow back.”
“I’m not a bad person,” I said.
“No,” she said. “But you’re angry.”
“Why do you like it that way?”
“Why do you?”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s a beautiful answer,” she said. “It’s my favorite answer of all time. I don’t know, you don’t know, no one knows. And it doesn’t matter, as long as we’re happy.” She put her lips against my ear and whispered, “Are you happy?”
I nodded yes.
“Do you love me?” she said.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what?”
“I don’t know if I love you.”
“You just said ‘I love you.’ I knew you did.”
“Very funny,” I said.
“I bet if I said ‘I love you’ into your ear enough times, and just the right way, I could get you to say it back to me.”
She started whispering into my ear, so softly at first that I couldn’t make out what she was saying, but then I heard “I love you” over and over, then, “Say it, say it, come on, you can say it for me,” and then the phone rang.
Her machine picked up, there was a pause, and then a man’s voice. Alex kept her lips near my ear, but stopped whispering. The man was crying, or had been. “I know you’re there,” he said. “Please pick up the phone.” His voice was calm, the way Henry had described the voice of Alex’s ex-boyfriend the night he came looking for her. He said, “I’ve been feeling sick. We need to see each other.” Alex got out of bed and stood near the phone, and for a moment I thought she was going to pick up. “Alex,” he said. “Do you have someone there? If you have someone there, I want you to . . . Please pick up the phone.”
A few seconds after he hung up, before either of us had a chance to say anything, the phone rang again. The machine picked up, and the same man said, “I know you’re there. Do you think for one second that I don’t know you’re there. I can see you. Remember, I can always see you. Your hand is on the phone and you’re listening to me . . .”
The third time he called, he said, “I’m going to keep calling until you pick up. Your phone is going to ring all night. You can unplug the phone, but as soon as you plug it in again, it’s going to ring.”
For the next few minutes the phone kept ringing—four rings, a pause, four more rings—but Alex didn’t move away from the phone, probably because she was deciding what she wanted to tell me: the truth or a lie or a combination of the two.
“Are you going to unplug the phone?” I said. “Or would you rather your houseboy do it for you?”
“I would rather my houseboy do it.”
“Well, the houseboy would rather you do it.”
“I don’t think I can.”
“It’s quite easy,” I said. “You grab the cord and pull.”
The phone rang again, and this time the machine picked up. There was a long silence, and I found myself afraid to speak, as if her ex-boyfriend could hear us. I surprised myself by picking up the phone, but as soon as I heard his voice I realized that my bravado was akin to yelling at someone as you drive by in your car. He said, “Alex? Alex? . . . Okay, you don’t need to say anything. You’ve taken the first step, which is picking up the phone. Now, listen carefully. What you’re going to do is take a cab to my place. You’re going to do this immediately, do you hear me? . . . Do you remember the last time we had to do this—how easy it was? It’s going to be that easy. Can you say yes if you understand? . . . Alex, if you’re not here within twenty minutes, I’m going to come there, and if I have to come there, I’m going to be very disappointed, and you don’t want me—”
I put down the phone, then pulled out the cord. “I’m going to leave now,” I said. “If you want to come with me, you’re more than welcome. But I’d rather not get involved with something I know nothing about.”
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “Tell me what to do.”
“That’s not part of the houseboy’s job.”
Only after I’d opened the door did she say, “Okay, wait, wait. I’ll come with you. Let me leave a note on the door, just so he . . . no, fuck it, okay, this is crazy, I’m coming.”
This was the first time anyone had been to my apartment in the year I’d been living there. My sister had lived there before she died, sometimes with two or three people, usually her boyfriend and his friends, all of them so high they mostly sat around staring at the walls, nodding off. My sister didn’t use heroin until she realized it was the only way she’d be able to stay in her boyfriend’s life. They both OD’d in this apartment on the same night; she died, he almost did, then he found God and became a motivational speaker. I went to one of his seminars about a year after my sister died, prepared to stand up and expose him, but I sat there and listened to what he had to say, most of which made sense, I had to admit, even though I hated him—I’d hated him from the moment I met him—and what would I have exposed anyway that he hadn’t already exposed? His entire seminar was built upon his addiction and recovery. He probably would have invited me up onstage; he probably would have hugged me, would have asked my forgiveness, whatever step that is, this guy who killed my sister, now with his Jesus hair and beard, his hemp shoes, beads around his wrists, his neck. But he didn’t make my sister do anything—even he said that in his seminar: No one can make you do anything. You are responsible for your own actions. There’s no one else to blame. You have to let the past die. The only moment that exists is the present. In every moment you’re born again. All these maudlin truisms were in fact true—at least he convinced me that they were—but I hated that they came from his mouth, and if my sister was to blame, well, then there was hate for her too.
It was unnerving to have another person in such a small space now, especially the room in which my sister had died.
“Wow,” Alex said. “You weren’t kidding when you called your apartment modest.”
I sat on the mattress on the floor, the only piece of furniture in the room, if you consider a mattress furniture, which I suppose it’s not. Until a month earlier, I’d had a desk—actually, an old kitchen table I used as a desk—but the legs had broken, and I didn’t own a screwdriver or a hammer or any tool one might use to fix anything broken, so I threw out the legs, and for several weeks I’d been sitting on the floor, Indian-style, hunched over the tabletop to write letters to old friends from graduate school, making up excuses about why I’d dropped out. I told them I didn’t really want to go into social work, which was only part of the truth. Another part was that my sister had died, which they all knew about. The rest of the truth was that I didn’t believe you could help or save certain people, no matter what you did, and when I realized this I had a bit of a breakdown and began to have terrible dreams, and even during my waking hours I found myself imagining the worst kinds of violence: walking down the street, often just to be outside after too many days in, I would imagine strangers punching or stabbing or shooting me, or I’d become certain that something was about to fall on me, a brick or a chunk of ice or a plane or sometimes nothing specific, an invisible weight, the air itself, and I remember my surprise when nothing happened, when people walked past without looking at me, or when I looked up and saw only trees, the sides of buildings, clouds. And so, no longer in school, and with no job, I decided to move into my sister’s old apartment on Avenue B—I’d been renting it since she died, even though I was in graduate school in Philadelphia. It was five hundred dollars a month, and my unused student loans covered the first ten months, most of which I don’t remember, and when I ran out of money I got the job taking care of Henry. It appealed to me because I wasn’t expected to save him—I couldn’t make him walk, couldn’t make him stop shaking—but, rather, all I had to do was feed him and dress him and keep his ass clean, and if that sounds unduly bitter or cold or dramatic, it’s probably all three.
“Why do you live here?” Alex asked me.
“It’s cheap,” I said. “Besides, I don’t know how long I want to stay in New York. I think I want to live in the woods or something. Get a dog, live off berries and grubs.”
“You really do need to be my houseboy.” She sat next to me on the mattress, then put her head in my lap. She lifted my shirt and started kissing my stomach.
“It would be a gross understatement to say that I’m not in the mood,” I said.
“Did you just call me gross?”
“Don’t joke,” I said. “Nothing’s funny right now.”
She smiled dumbly and pitter-pattered her fingers against her bucked teeth like a crazy person. I could feel another me beneath the numb me who, once he started laughing, might laugh all the way into a straitjacket, but I didn’t want to give Alex the satisfaction—I felt, at that moment, a strange certainty that this woman would take everything from me, that she could get me to do anything for her, so I didn’t smile.
“Knock it off,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m waiting for you to speak.”
“We were living together for about a year,” she said. “It was a very volatile relationship—you know, the unhealthy love/hate thing—and eventually I left him, but I went back, then I left him again, then I went back, then my friends came and got me and moved me out.”
“So you didn’t even leave him on your own?”
“I left him twice on my own.”
“Did he hurt you?”
“We hurt each other,” she said.
“I mean, did he physically hurt you?”
“Are you hatching a theory?” she said. “Because it sounds like you’re trying to hatch a theory.”
“My theory is that I don’t know you.”
“You know me,” she said. “You knew me the moment you met me. People are drawn to each other for a reason.”
“Are you talking about me and you, or you and him?”
“Both,” she said. “I’m talking about everyone. We know what we’re doing way more than we’d like to believe. When people get out of fucked-up relationships, they say, ‘What was I thinking?’ or ‘I didn’t know what I was doing,’ but we always know what we’re doing. On some level, I mean. Maybe in that part of our brains or souls we can’t access, but we do know what we’re doing.”
“So what are we doing?”
“We’re sitting on a mattress in what might be the most depressing apartment I’ve ever been in,” she said. “God, I can’t imagine a worse place to die.”
“Why do you like it when I hurt you?”
“Why do you like it?” she said. “Why are you so angry?”
“I’m not angry,” I said.
“Do you hate your mother?”
“My mother’s old,” I said. “She has arthritis and osteoporosis and is lonely and I feel sorry for her, but I don’t hate her.”
“What about your sister?”
“I don’t have a sister.”
“You’ve mentioned a sister,” she said. “You said she was five years older. That’s how I remember.”
“You’re confusing me with someone else.”
“I’m sure it was you.”
“Well, I’m sorry. I guess you know more about me than I do. Tell me about my sister. What’s her name? What’s she like?”
“Her name is Imogene, but everyone calls her Gene, except you, you call her Imogene. Growing up, she had a lot of boyfriends, and you were jealous because you were in love with her.”
“Great,” I said. “That’s a lovely story.”
“So,” she said. “Who did a number on you?”
“Maybe you’re right,” I said. “We shouldn’t talk anymore.”
I got under the covers with my clothes on and watched her get undressed.
She looked sad the way my sister used to when she’d had a fight with her boyfriend. As far back as I could remember, she was always trying to please boys, always walking behind them or tugging on their shirtsleeves, or else calling them or writing them earnest but sentimental letters, always asking for something, more attention, more love. She was engaged twice, and both times I heard my mother call my father, whom she had divorced when I was five, and ask him to speak with June—that was my sister’s name—but my father was on his third wife by then, a girl not that much older than June, and he never stopped by or called, and that was why I felt it was my job to save her, even though I was only thirteen the first time she got engaged, eighteen the second. Both times, the guy backed out, and both times my sister had a new boyfriend within a few weeks—naïve, awkward guys who were crazy about my sister and had no idea she didn’t love them.
I watched Alex drink a glass of cloudy tap water, and a protective urge came over me. She was wearing Wonder Woman underwear, and it was difficult not to see her then as a girl, her legs the long, skinny legs of a teenager, her stomach muscles tight like June’s had been her last few years.
She stood beside the mattress and looked down at me. “I didn’t mean we shouldn’t talk at all,” I said. “I just meant that we should change the subject.”
“Take your jeans off,” she said. “It’s very uncomfortable to sleep next to denim.”
I took off my jeans and shirt and tossed them onto the floor. Alex turned off the light and got into bed, then put one of her legs between mine. “Thanks for being such a great houseboy,” she said.
I woke from a dream in which children were jumping from buildings. It was my job to catch them, only they didn’t fall, they floated away like helium balloons.
Alex was standing by the door, dressed. A voice inside my head said, “Let her go,” but I couldn’t stop myself from stopping her. “Are you going to see him?” I said.
“Who?” she said. Then: “No, God, of course not. I can’t sleep, and I was afraid I was keeping you up, so I was going to go home.”
“I was sleeping just fine.”
“You were kicking,” she said. “And your breathing was funny, like you were running.”
“It was probably a dream,” I said. “I used to have a really great dream, but I haven’t had it in a few years, where I can dunk a basketball. The rims are about twenty feet in the air, and there are a dozen players on the other team, but I float right past them and dunk, over and over.”
“You weren’t having that dream,” she said.
“Come back to bed.”
“I’m restless,” she said. “There’s nowhere to go in this apartment. I thought of sitting on the toilet and reading a magazine, but that’s too depressing.”
“I can come with you,” I said.
“No,” she said. “I want to be alone, if that’s okay.”
“Sure,” I said. “But be careful.”
“I’m not going to see him,” she said.
“I meant that this neighborhood isn’t the safest.”
“I’ll be fine,” she said.
After Alex left, I lay in bed unable to sleep, remembering the last time I tried to stop my sister from going back to her boyfriend. It was a few months before she died, and I could see—everyone could—that she’d been using, that she was in trouble. The previous times I’d tried to talk her out of this relationship, she had nodded her head and agreed with everything I was telling her. She would say, “I know, I know. God, you’re right. I really do have to get my shit together. I know he’s not good for me.” But the last time, she didn’t even pretend. It was the drugs now too. “Listen,” she said. “I love you, and I know you’re trying to help, but I know what makes me happy. I’ll be okay,” she said. “I’m going to get him to quit, but he can’t quit without me. That’s why I’m doing this—so we can quit together.” When we left her apartment, I watched her walk down the stairs, and I was sure I’d never see her alive again, so I closed my eyes and fell forward and tumbled down the stairs, and I heard something snap on the way down, though I had no idea what—everything hurt—and only when I reached the bottom did I realize it had been my ankle.
June tried to convince me I was okay. She said, “Try walking on it. Maybe it’s just a sprain.” She tried to pull me to my feet, but I cried out. She kept saying, “Are you sure you can’t walk? Maybe if you lean on me.”
“It’s broken,” I said. “I need you to call an ambulance.”
“You didn’t have to do this!” she said. It was the first time in my life she’d raised her voice to me. “You’re not helping me this way!”
She called for an ambulance. Two men came and put an air cast on my ankle, then carried me downstairs on a stretcher. Before they put me into the ambulance, I said to June, “Meet me at the hospital.”
“Okay,” she said.
The men asked June if she wanted to ride with them, but she said no, she’d get herself to the hospital.
“Do you know where it is?” one of the men said.
“Yes,” she said, but I already knew she wouldn’t be there.
As I was getting Henry ready for his shower, I asked him about Alex’s ex-boyfriend. “What else do you know about him?” I said.
“She’s causing trouble already, huh?”
“No,” I said. “It’s not that. I like her, and I’m concerned.”
“Well,” he said. “I don’t like her.”
“You don’t have to like her,” I said. “I’m asking for me.”
“The time I told you about is the only time I saw him. He called here a lot. I could tell it was him because her voice would change. A girl talking to her father.”
I picked up Henry and moved him into his shower chair. The water was too cold, he said, so I made it warmer and warmer until he said okay.
“Did she ever say anything about him?”
“Not much,” he said. “Only that they were getting married.”
I rubbed shampoo into Henry’s hair, then rinsed it, then rubbed in conditioner. I washed his face with a washcloth, then his hands and feet, then the rest of his body. “Don’t forget my bottom,” he said.
“I wash that last for a reason,” I said. “Unless you want me to wash your ass, then your face.”
I rinsed the conditioner from his hair, then rinsed his body, then started to dry him. He said, “She showed up for work a few times with bruises.”
“People get bruises,” I said.
“On her face,” he said.
“Did you ask her about them?”
“Only the first time,” he said. “She told me she got into a bar fight, but I knew she was lying.”
Once, when I was eleven and June was sixteen, I undressed her, put her in the tub, and ran cold water over her. My mother was away for the night and June was supposed to be watching me, but instead she went out with a man my mother had forbidden her to see (he was twenty-two and had a mustache), and he must have gotten her drunk or high or both. I remembered what to do from a TV movie I’d seen: when someone drinks too much or takes too many pills, you make them drink coffee and put them in a tub of ice. I didn’t know how to make coffee, and we didn’t have enough ice to fill a tub, so I ran cold water over my sister. Her breasts looked much smaller naked than they looked under clothes. If she had been wearing a bra, I would have left it on, just as I left on her underwear. Her eyes were closed, and she kept mumbling something incoherent, and I asked her to open her eyes, and when she didn’t, I opened them for her, and she weakly slapped my hands away, and we kept playing this game until she got sick in the tub.
But worse was the night a few years later, the summer before June started college, when she didn’t come home. My mother sat up all night at the kitchen table, smoking cigarettes from a pack she kept for emergencies. I sat on the stairs, watching her, worried that my sister was dead, that this would kill my mother, that I would be forced to live with my father, who was a stranger to me, or that perhaps my father wouldn’t want me. My mother yelled at me to get back in bed and keep my door closed, but every time I heard a car stop outside, or voices on the street, I came out of my room to see if it was June. By morning, my mother had given up, had “washed her hands” of my sister. She didn’t scream when June came home, didn’t try to shame her, didn’t punish her. From the stairs I could see my sister breathing on my mother’s face to prove she hadn’t been drinking, but my mother turned away and said nothing. When June came upstairs, I hugged her and told her I’d waited up all night too, and she said she was sorry. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and I saw then that someone had written the word SLUT in black marker on one of her eyelids. When she opened her eyes, I asked her to close them again, and when she closed her eyes, I smacked her. She stepped back, her mouth open. I don’t think I knew what the word slut meant, but I knew enough to know that my sister had been lying to my mother, and that any word written on my sister’s eyelid could not have been written with kindness. She ran into the bathroom, where she must have looked into the mirror. I heard her crying, and after a few minutes I went in. She was washing her face. She kept turning to me to ask if it was all gone. “It’s just my crazy friends,” she said. “It’s only a joke, it doesn’t mean anything.”
I had a key to Alex’s apartment, and sometimes I was there without her. One afternoon she came home but didn’t know I was there. I was in the bathroom, drying after a shower, and didn’t hear her. I walked out of the bathroom just as she was about to walk in. She screamed so loudly, as if she were being stabbed, that I was afraid someone would call the police. Even after she knew it was me, she wouldn’t let me near her. She sat on the floor, shaking, while from a few feet away I told her I was sorry and tried to reassure her that everything was okay. She took some Valium and breathed deeply. After a few minutes passed—I had moved closer to her, but didn’t touch her—she said, “I’m so embarrassed.”
“You didn’t know I was here,” I said. “I was scared too. I’m going to name one of my new gray hairs after you.”
“It’s not that I was scared,” she said. “I was beyond scared. My God, I was a complete wimp.”
“You’re being too hard on yourself.”
“Sometimes, I want to kill him,” she said. “I have fantasies about terrible things happening to him.”
I waited to see if she would say more, and when she didn’t, I said, “Instead of being your houseboy, I can be your hit man. The only problem is, I’m not very tough.”
“I bet you could beat someone up if you were angry enough,” she said. “Haven’t you ever been in a fight?”
“Not really,” I said. “The closest I’ve ever been to a fight was when I used to practice wrestling moves on my sister.” I stopped when I saw the expression on her face. She was kind, and didn’t say anything, didn’t say, “I knew you had a sister!”
“When I was in high school,” I continued, “I used to get her into submission holds. I would twist her legs, or sit on her back and pull her hair. Once, I picked her up, upside down, and dropped her on her head, and for three weeks she had to wear a neck brace. She pretended to be dead. She kept her eyes open and wouldn’t answer when I asked if she was okay. She held her breath and didn’t move. I was so scared I actually got a hard-on.” I looked at Alex for a reaction, but her expression didn’t change.
“During a trip we took for my birthday last year,” she said, “he wouldn’t stop at a rest stop so I could use the bathroom. I told him I had to go, but he ignored me. He wouldn’t get off the highway, and I actually had to—I think you could be a hit man if you wanted to be one.”
“If I were given the right assignment,” I said.
“He convinced me that he was supernatural,” she said. “One of my friends was on to him—she knew he was being cruel to me—and one night she confronted him, and they made a big scene, it was very embarrassing, and on her way home that night she got into a car accident and died, and he said to me, ‘Do you see what happens?’ He said, ‘You have no idea what kind of forces are working for me.’ And I believed him! I was certain that if anyone helped me, that if I even asked for anyone’s help, that person would die.”
“Does that mean I’m going to die?”
“I don’t think so.”
After a long pause she said, “I’m sorry about your sister.”
“What about her?”
“She’s gone, isn’t she? I mean, she died, right?”
“Poor Imogene,” she said.
“June,” I said.
After she told me more details—how he made her take a cold shower and then stand in front of an air conditioner for three hours; how he didn’t let her sleep for four nights, screaming at her every time she closed her eyes; how he forbade her to speak with anyone but him, forbade her to eat until he had eaten, forbade her to use the same soap he used, to drink from the same glasses he drank from; all his fascist rules she followed—after she told me all this, our sex changed. For the next month, until the night I fake-raped her. We agreed—Alex reluctantly—that I would no longer hit her, or pretend to hit her, would no longer scratch her back or pull her hair or bite her lips or pinch her nipples or push her face into the headboard or wall, would no longer act out any cruelties toward her, whether she asked me to or not, and sometimes she did not have to; I would no longer say the mean things she liked me to say, which I came to like to say, which I will not repeat here. Instead, I said kind things to her, and washed her hair, and rubbed her back and feet, and cooked her dinner, if you consider making grilled cheese sandwiches cooking, and for several weeks became a kind of houseboy, after all, and we might as well have been an old married couple, and the entire time I knew I was losing her.
Two nights in a row, when I started to kiss her, she didn’t kiss me back. The second night, she told me she felt anxious: She wanted to scream; she wanted to throw something out her window—the phone, a lamp, a chair.
“As long as you don’t throw me out the window,” I said.
She didn’t smile. “Haven’t you ever wanted to jump out a window?”
“No,” I said. “That wouldn’t be my first choice. Quick, sure, but I think pills and booze in a bathtub would be nice.”
“Let’s do it together.”
“Sounds like a great date.”
“I’m being a crazy bitch tonight,” she said.
“Excuse me,” I said. “We don’t use the word ‘bitch’ in this house.”
“Not anymore,” she said.
“It’s nice to be nice to each other.”
“We’ve always been nice to each other.”
“Not always,” I said.
“You were never really hurting me,” she said.
“I don’t think I was helping.”
“But you were,” she said. “Without it, I feel like hurting myself.” She held out her hands; there was a cut on each palm.
“Great,” I said. “You get me to hurt you so you won’t have to do it.”
“You’re not really hurting me,” she said. “That’s the whole point. You act it out so I don’t have to actually do it.”
“But why me? Why couldn’t anyone do this for you? Is it because I’m good at it? I mean, for God’s sake, I don’t want to be good at this.”
“Don’t be so dumb,” she said. “It’s because you’re a good egg and I know you’d never really hurt me.”
“But someone did hurt you.”
“Yes,” she said, “but he’s not you. Listen,” she said. “Imagine you had a terrible experience. Let’s say you were mugged and beaten on a particular street in a neighborhood you like. One option is never to go back to that street for as long as you live, which is a kind of death, the way I see it. The other option is to go back to that street with someone you trust, to prove to yourself that it’s safe. I’m only asking you to take a walk with me.”
I have to be careful about how I write the rest of this story. Even when you’re writing about what actually happened, you can still write yourself into a corner, and right now I’m in a corner. The problem isn’t that I don’t know what happens next. I began this story with what happens next: I wait in Alex’s closet for her to get home, come up behind her, press a plastic knife against her throat, and pretend to rape her. Then I feel a pain in my chest, she takes me to the emergency room, a doctor gives me a needle to slow my heart, et cetera. One problem is that I don’t know how to explain my actions, or, rather, my character’s actions. I don’t know how to make what he does believable. Why would this guy, given what he knew, pretend to rape his girlfriend? Did he actually believe he was helping her? In an earlier draft of this story, my character didn’t know that Alex’s ex-boyfriend had abused her; he found out only after he’d fake-raped her. That way, his decision to participate might be justified: well, he didn’t really know what was behind her request. When I finished writing that draft, I liked my character, but I could not say that I liked myself, and I wanted to. I wanted the reader to like me too, or at least to sympathize with me. But what good would that sympathy be if it were for a fake me? Despite my best intentions, I couldn’t help but spin this story, just as I can’t help but spin every story that’s really about me. I make myself a little better or worse, depending on what the story needs. I have my character do things I almost did, but didn’t quite